Hundreds of immigrants escaped from the Hal Safi detention centre yesterday morning, leading to violent scuffles with police and members of the armed forces in the streets as, according to Police Commissioner John Rizzo, “they made their way to Castille to talk to the Prime Minister”.
By evening, it was still unclear whether all the escapees had returned to the AFM barracks as reports of individuals who were still running at large could not be confirmed by the authorities.
At least eight police and AFM members were injured during the incidents and five immigrants were recovered for slight injuries.
In what was described by soldiers manning the detention centre as “the worst breakout ever”, over 300 immigrants took to the streets at around 9.30am as police and the AFM tried to contain them.
All police officers on duty at the time had to be called on the scene to control the situation as the escaped migrants had already reached the Luqa roundabout claiming they would march to Valletta.
It was at that point that some immigrants charged back at the police who tried to form a cordon. According to the police, the law enforcement officers had to use “the necessary minimum force” to control the crowd as immigrants assaulted police and AFM officers and attacked a traffic police officer by toppling him from his motor bike, destroying his communications equipment.
As they were being escorted on their way back, some of the immigrants started throwing stones and bottles at the police, injuring Superintendent Ray Zammit by hitting him with a stone on his chest.
Once back inside the detention centre, detainees set alight a number of skips and mattresses as they reportedly challenged police officers with iron bars which they took from their bed frames. The situation returned to relative calm at around noon, after the AFM negotiated the peaceful return of migrants to their detention centre.
Meanwhile, a photo-journalist for The Malta Independent was lightly injured after he was manhandled by police during the scuffles.
Photo-journalist Ben Borg Cardona was pushed in the chest by police officers, with the result that he later required medical attention. He was eventually discharged from St Luke’s Casualty, where he was found to be suffering from minor injuries.
The Journalists’ Committee expressed its serious concern with “the confrontational attitude taken by police officers towards journalists, particularly photographers and cameramen,” who were reporting the immigrants’ uprising.
In the commotion, police officers, including Police Commissioner John Rizzo, shouted repeatedly to cameramen and photographers to “let them (the police) do their job” even though the press remained behind the police line. Individual police officers were also heard instructing photographers and cameramen to stop filming the incident.
In a press statement, the Journalists’ Committee said it understood that yesterday’s incidents were highly charged, with a number of police and AFM officers also sadly injured in the scuffles with immigrants. However, “it is unacceptable that the press is viewed by people in authority and public officials as a hindrance, when it is in the public interest that it covers these issues, even more so when the incidents happened in the public domain.”
Meanwhile, a boat carrying around 200 immigrants that was sighted around 70 miles North East of Malta had not yet reached Maltese shores until yesterday evening although the AFM were expecting to be called in for assistance at any time.